Change in Employee Compensation a Top UI Priority
Many college students can tell the story of a professor who influenced their education, or a staff member who took the time to help with an education program or a campus activity. At the University of Idaho, an outstanding workforce that prepares students for success is a critical part of the educational fabric of Idaho’s flagship university.
A few numbers begin to tell the story of the University of Idaho workforce, comprised of more than 900 highly qualified faculty and more than 1,500 staff. UI employees are stretched across the state, from the main campus in Moscow; to centers in Coeur d’Alene, Boise and Idaho Falls; to extension programs for 43 Idaho counties and three Indian reservations. Employees of UI are charged with inspiring the futures of over 11,000 students, each enrolled in one of 130 undergraduate degree programs or one of 126 graduate degree programs, and often engaged in research, student organizations, and a bevy of campus-life activities.
Issues on the Front Lines
Employees at UI are on the front lines of creating a legacy of leading. Like other public, higher-education institutions, the faculty and staff of the UI are employees of the state. Wages for state employees are adjusted through a change in employee compensation (CEC), dictated usually by the priorities expressed in the governor’s annual budget proposal, taken up with or without alteration by the state legislature. The legislature can also choose to act apart from specific CEC recommendations made in the governor’s budget.
Increasingly, wages at the university have fallen behind, making it difficult to recruit and retain the highly qualified faculty and staff demanded of a national research university. A state-commissioned annual study this year showed Idaho’s state-worker pay as 18.9 percent below market value – a slide from 2010’s rate of 15 percent below market value. Despite an overall rebound from the economic woes of 2008’s recession, state employees have seen only one pay increase in the past five years, and only two increases in the past seven years, since before the recession.
That below-market compensation negatively impacts UI’s ability to recruit faculty and staff who will engage in groundbreaking research and innovative education.
“The future hiring of new staff will present challenges,” Interim President Don Burnett wrote in a recent letter to faculty and staff. “The university seeks to employ a highly qualified workforce, and is subject to market forces when doing so.”
UI Faculty Senate Chair Patricia Hartzell, a professor with the College of Science, witnesses the problem firsthand.
“We have been able to recruit good faculty but at a great cost,” Hartzell said, alluding to the sometimes-necessary shuffling of funds to attract new personnel, a course dictated by the absence of increased funding.
“The bigger problem is retention. We get good people to come here, but then cannot give them raises, so they leave.”
Keeping the Vandal Family
Leadership at Idaho’s public higher education system has taken steps to address this problem. The President’s Council on Higher Education, a collaboration of leadership from all four-year, public higher education institutions and chaired by Burnett, this year issued a joint statement urging the State Board of Education to request that a wage increase – change in employee compensation – be included in the governor’s next proposed executive budget.
For Burnett, compensation is not just a factor in recruiting exceptional employees; it is an important challenge in keeping those employees as part of the Vandal family.
"One of the issues that we face every time we raise a CEC issue is, ‘Isn’t it true that people can move from job to job within an organization, whether it’s an agency or a higher education department?’”
Burnett acknowledges that that might be true for some employees, “but that’s not a compensation policy. That’s a policy by which you move people up and out of the organization.”
In recognition of the seriousness of this issue to the health of the higher education landscape in Idaho, the State Board took the unusual step of adopting the President’s Council’s recommendations and urging a change in employee compensation – the board typically does not enter into recommendations on this subject.
Deeming it the number one budget priority for higher education, the board said, “The ability to recruit and retain quality faculty and staff is the lifeblood of higher education. These employees will play a critical role in preparing the skilled workforce needed for well over half of all Idaho jobs. The knowledge, skills and abilities of our workforce will ultimately determine how effective and competitive Idaho will remain.”
The board intends to notify the governor, the co-chairs of the joint finance and appropriations committee, and other germane committee chairs of their recommendation and that this issue is their number one priority for the spring legislative session. If the issue is not included in the governor’s budget, separate legislative action may still be possible.